cross posted at annoyedomnivore.wordpress.com
In 1998, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello discovered, or rather re-developed, a process called RNAi, which stands for RNA interference. They basically found a way to streamline, or perfect a method of gene silencing. Gene silencing, once thought by scientists to occur only in plants, is a process where pre-prepared double stranded RNA is inserted into a cell in order to block the code of a particular gene, thereby shutting down the gene’s orders, or the translation of the gene’s orders. The gene then can no longer perform its function. The gene is not damaged, just rendered silent. In subsequent studies with mice, RNAi has affected a reversal of liver disease and has shut down the translation of HIV orders within a cell. Since 2002, tests have been done on a drug that uses RNAi to interrupt macular degeneration, which causes blindness, and other studies are being done on diseases such as cancer, hepatitis C and Huntington’s.
The use of RNAi in medicine – think of drugs that could be developed to turn off genes contributing to high cholesterol – is exciting. Currently, however, scientists have encountered difficulty in delivering the RNA through the human bloodstream into the cells where it is needed. The use of RNAi in plants has already been implemented, such as in the development of the non-browning apple, and to genetically engineer virus resistance in crops.
Given the potential of RNAi, it’s more than disconcerting to learn that Monsanto, whose overall track record is demonic, has purchased the rights to use Alnylam Pharmaceuticals’ RNA interference technology. Under the terms of the agreement, Monsanto receives worldwide exclusive rights to use Alnylam’s technology. Alnylam received nearly $30 million from Monsanto upfront, and will in future receive funding for research. Selling her soul to the devil, Rachel Meyers, Vice President, Research and RNAi lead Development at Alnylam, stated “there could be no stronger partner for these applications, as Monsanto has a deep commitment to innovation and scientific excellence, and to the advancement of technologies to improve agriculture. This new alliance furthers our vision for RNAi technologies across a broad range of applications.” Monsanto will use RNAi technology in its BioDirect range of “biospesticides” or “agricultural biologicals.” Monsanto estimates that the development and use of these technologies will generate $1.7 billion in annual sales for the company.
The vision of Monsanto is to develop new pesticides that will silence specific insect genes in order to either make them susceptible to other chemicals or kill them outright. The official statement of intent from Monsanto is that “we are committed to supporting farmer and consumer demand for sustainable agricultural practices. BioDirect technology uses molecules found in nature which are common components of the food we eat and our environment…We believe this topical alternative is expected to provide pest control products that will expand farmers’ choices.”
A non-governmental organization, the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, which is supported by the USDA, pushes RNAi research. Even they, however, confess that “RNAi technology has enormous potential for unforeseen consequences.” They also acknowledge “that our knowledge of the enormously complex system of interactions that includes gene silencing is woefully incomplete.” Some scientists also fear that by releasing gene silencing pesticides into fields could harm beneficial insects or possibly human health. ”To attempt to use this technology at this current stage of understanding would be more naive than our use of DDT in the 1950s,” states the National Honey Bee Advisory Board.
Specifically, Monsanto has applied for regulatory approval of corn that is genetically engineered to use RNAi to kill the western corn rootworm. Up to now, farmers have been planting BT corn that produces a toxin that kills the rootworm when they eat the crop. The rootworms, however, have evolved to resist the BT toxin. The modified RNA would, in theory, kill the pest, but many scientists argue that the modified RNA could also affect other insects that eat the corn or become exposed to the RNA in water or soil. The corn, dubbed SmartStax Pro by Monsanto, could be on the market in a few years.
Syngenta has also come aboard for the big money, having acquired Devgen, a Belgian biotech company, for $500 million. Both Monsanto and Syngenta are working with these companies to develop RNAi sprays. What is ignored in this case are the “associated application problems” of spraying. Other issues have arisen from the ingestion of RNAi treated crops. The Safe Food Foundation & Institute has enlisted scientists to study GM crops, specifically wheat, and results thus far have at least caused them “serious concerns regarding the safety testing of GM wheat.” According to these scientists, there is a close similarity between the DNA sequences for the silenced wheat gene and a human enzyme involved in producing glycogen, which is stored in liver and muscle cells and that is converted to glucose to meet metabolic energy requirements. The warning is that any alterations in the glycogen pathway could lead to glycogen storage disease IV, which causes death by age five. Another study, this one done by scientists at the University of Kentucky and the University of Nebraska, found that the double stranded RNA intended to kill rootworms also affected a gene in ladybugs, killing them as well.
There’s probably little hope of stemming the tide of millions of dollars invested in the implementation of these little studied RNAi technologies. One small effort that can be expended by individuals is to encourage political force in the area of overall GM labeling and education. And eat organic.
I don’t eat much pasta these days, but I fondly remember this delicious, fast and easy recipe I came up with many years ago.
Spaghetti with Olives
1 lb spaghetti
4 anchovies, minced
6 large cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups black, organic, pitted olives, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
Cook spaghetti in salted water until al dente. Drain, but don’t rinse. Put oil, anchovies and garlic in a large pan. Turn heat on to high, and when the garlic starts to sizzle, add the olives and pasta. Mix well, taste for salt, and add more olive oil if necessary. You can top this with grated parmesan or crushed, seasoned croutons. Serve with salad.